Why Boston Dynamics' New Robot Scares the Crap out of Us
Handle, the latest robot from Google-backed Boston Dynamics, elicits both excitement and anxiety. The company's founder has described it as "nightmare-inducing."
David is an ambidextrous thinker who likes big ideas. As a “Tech Ethicist,” he explores our evolving relationship with social media and tech from an ethical, legal, and emotional perspective. Utilizing his background as an attorney, educator, and pop culture aficionado, David offers a fresh perspective on potential trends and ways to humanize our digital lives. He is currently a speaker (3-time TEDx), branding and communications consultant, and Trust & Safety for social messaging platform Friendbase. David is researching the impact that “scaling intimacy” has on human relationships, and working on an upcoming book. He is also the co-host for Funny as Tech.
He can be contacted at TechEthicist.com and @TechEthicist.
Perhaps singularity is a little too near.
The latest video by robot developer Boston Dynamics, which seems to always coincide with a rise of Terminator references, has elicited a wide range of strong emotional reactions. The new robot, Handle (because it will be handling objects), brings forth a sense of awe for its speed, agility, strength, and ability to jump. At the same time, the machine's impressiveness brings forward deep-seated fears of robots-gone-wild.
We don't want the student to become the master.
"This is the debut presentation of what I think will be a nightmare-inducing robot."-Boston Dynamics' founder Marc Raibert, introducing Handle at a private event in late January 2017.
It is easy to picture Handle as either:
1. A benevolent robot working alongside human employees in a warehouse. (Bonus: no sore back from lifting all of those heavy boxes.)
2. A weaponized robot deployed by militaries. (I wouldn't want to go up against Handle in a human vs machine version of BattleBots.)
Raibert was right in his prediction that Handle would be viewed as nightmare-inducing, with a flurry of comments online expressing a certain level of anxiety.
— Ian Keddie (@IanJKeddie) February 27, 2017
The fear is less about the current state of robots, and more so an uncertain future as to how they will be developed. It hasn't helped that luminaries such as Stephen Hawking have expressed a level of uncertainty:
"In short, the rise of powerful AI will either be the best, or the worst thing, ever to happen to humanity. We do not know which yet." -Stephen Hawking, speaking at the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence at Cambridge University.
Well, that's reassuring.
Putting aside the concept of machines gaining sentience and turning on humans, there is the more short-term concern about how the robots will be developed. As a company, Boston Dynamics has helped build robots for organizations ranging from Sony to the US Army.
Why is the Handle So Frightening?
When I watch the Handle in the video, I imagine an advanced human. That may be the problem. I am anthropomorphizing an object that can provide a great deal of utility, and am envisioning something that can have a personality. Instead of viewing it as a "thing" that picks up objects (like a crane), I am envisioning a "person" that not only picks up objects but throws them. It is a thin line between help and hurt.
That may be too much to, ehem, handle.
"It’s almost like a Rorschach type of thing really. I mean we fundamentally don’t know what a superhuman AI is going to do and that’s the truth of it, right. And then if you tend to be an optimist you will focus on the good possibilities. If you tend to be a worried person who’s pessimistic you’ll focus on the bad possibilities. If you tend to be a Hollywood movie maker you focus on scary possibilities maybe with a happy ending because that’s what sells movies. We don’t know what’s going to happen."-Ben Goertzel, AI researcher
Explore how alcohol affects your brain, from the first sip at the bar to life-long drinking habits.
- Alcohol is the world's most popular drug and has been a part of human culture for at least 9,000 years.
- Alcohol's effects on the brain range from temporarily limiting mental activity to sustained brain damage, depending on levels consumed and frequency of use.
- Understanding how alcohol affects your brain can help you determine what drinking habits are best for you.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx a team of DNA sequencers has figured that out.
- A team at UMass Amherst recently sequenced the genome of the Canadian lynx.
- It's part of a project intending to sequence the genome of every vertebrate in the world.
- Conservationists interested in the Canadian lynx have a new tool to work with.
If you want to know what makes a Canadian lynx a Canadian lynx, I can now—as of this month—point you directly to the DNA of a Canadian lynx, and say, "That's what makes a lynx a lynx." The genome was sequenced by a team at UMass Amherst, and it's one of 15 animals whose genomes have been sequenced by the Vertebrate Genomes Project, whose stated goal is to sequence the genome of all 66,000 vertebrate species in the world.
Sequencing the genome of a particular species of an animal is important in terms of preserving genetic diversity. Future generations don't necessarily have to worry about our memory of the Canadian Lynx warping the way hearsay warped perception a long time ago.
Artwork: Guillaume le Clerc / Wikimedia Commons
13th-century fantastical depiction of an elephant.
It is easy to see how one can look at 66,000 genomic sequences stored away as being the analogous equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is a potential tool for future conservationists.
But what are the practicalities of sequencing the genome of a lynx beyond engaging with broad bioethical questions? As the animal's habitat shrinks and Earth warms, the Canadian lynx is demonstrating less genetic diversity. Cross-breeding with bobcats in some portions of the lynx's habitat also represents a challenge to the lynx's genetic makeup. The two themselves are also linked: warming climates could drive Canadian lynxes to cross-breed with bobcats.
John Organ, chief of the U.S. Geological Survey's Cooperative Fish and Wildlife units, said to MassLive that the results of the sequencing "can help us look at land conservation strategies to help maintain lynx on the landscape."
What does DNA have to do with land conservation strategies? Consider the fact that the food found in a landscape, the toxins found in a landscape, or the exposure to drugs can have an impact on genetic activity. That potential change can be transmitted down the generative line. If you know exactly how a lynx's DNA is impacted by something, then the environment they occupy can be fine-tuned to meet the needs of the lynx and any other creature that happens to inhabit that particular portion of the earth.
Given that the Trump administration is considering withdrawing protection for the Canadian lynx, a move that caught scientists by surprise, it is worth having as much information on hand as possible for those who have an interest in preserving the health of this creature—all the way down to the building blocks of a lynx's life.
The exploding popularity of the keto diet puts a less used veggie into the spotlight.
- The cauliflower is a vegetable of choice if you're on the keto diet.
- The plant is low in carbs and can replace potatoes, rice and pasta.
- It can be eaten both raw and cooked for different benefits.
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